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Bourdieu and Literature

John R. W. Speller


Texte intégral

  • 1 See Jean-Pierre Martin, ‘Avant-Propos. Bourdieu le Désenchanteur’, in Jean-Pierre

1At the time of his death in 2002, Bourdieu was a contender for the position of France’s foremost intellectual, and one of the most influential sociologists in the world. A Chair in sociology at the Collège de France from 1981, he wrote on a wide range of topics from Kabyle society to French cultural taste, and from housing policy to fine art. Translated into some forty languages, his works have become standard points of reference in the fields of anthropology, linguistics, art history, cultural studies, politics, sociology, and beyond. Yet Bourdieu’s work on literature has so far received relatively little attention, especially in the Anglophone world. If few literature students in French universities have read even a single page of Bourdieu, this is even more likely to be true of their counterparts across the Channel and the Atlantic.1

2Certainly, Bourdieu’s sociology of culture can appear bleak and pessimistic – to the extent that some critics have even interpreted it as an ’attack’ on cultural creators, intellectuals, and critics, and on the very institutions of art and literature. To these critics, Bourdieu’s sociology would seem to reduce all high art and literature merely to so much ’cultural capital’, denying it any role other than that of reproducing and naturalising class distinction. Individual literary works would appear merely as the euphemised expressions of struggles for power and prestige within a narrowly defined literary field. Writers, and the battery of critics, scholars, and publishers supporting them, would ignore or deny the commercial and symbolic interests which drive them, so involved are they in the literary game, and so accepting are they of its unspoken rules and premises (what Bourdieu calls the field’s illusio). Not only is this sociology ’reductionist’, the critics argue, but the sociologist, who steps in as a selfstyled ’de-mystifier’, commits the double (and sometimes simultaneous) faux pas of stating the obvious and the taboo.

3This study sets out to go beyond these superficial arguments, which have been debated often enough (not least by Bourdieu). First, it examines Bourdieu’s methodology for analysing literary works, and demonstrates that it offers genuine insights for those involved in literary study. Second, it will show that although Bourdieu was keenly aware of the role that consecrated literature could play in reproducing class distinctions, his sociology also accorded literature a privileged status in struggles for political and aesthetic autonomy. This study seeks therefore to examine precisely how Bourdieu understood the relationship between literature and politics, and how he reconciled his emphasis on literature’s distinctive function with a continued belief in its emancipatory potential. Thirdly and finally, this study will show how Bourdieu’s belief in literature as a force for emancipation was reflected in the series of concrete proposals he made for the reform of literary education, at both school and university level.

4The opening chapter provides a first notion of the spaces of positions and position-taking in which Bourdieu’s theories of the literary field were developed, expressed, and received. This chapter positions Bourdieu in relation to the major figures in the French intellectual field in the 1960s, Jean-Paul Sartre and Claude Lévi-Strauss, and to the later schools of structuralism and post-structuralism, including post-modernism and deconstruction. The chapter introduces the problématique regarding Bourdieu’s work on literature from the point of view of the Anglophone field of reception, explaining its relatively belated reception in Britain and America. This exposition then serves as a starting point for the chapters that follow.

5Chapter 2 provides a generative blueprint for conducting a ’Bourdieusian’ analysis of a literary work, author, and field. It compares Bourdieu’s approach with more established literary theories, including Russian Formalism, literary structuralism, and literary Marxism. It assesses Bourdieu’s claim to have forged a link between internal reading and external analysis (of biographical, social, economic, and other determinations). It addresses previous and possible criticisms of Bourdieu’s method, and discusses recent attempts to apply Bourdieu’s framework to other national traditions and to extend it to the transnational level of ’world literary space’.

6The third chapter traces Bourdieu’s historical account of the genesis of the French literary field and its development over time, using the concepts presented in Chapter 2. This chapter shows how literature developed with other fields (the scientific field, the economic field, the political field), as Introduction 15 part of a single process of evolution, autonomisation and differentiation. Focusing on the critical period of the nineteenth century, it charts the creation of a restricted and relatively autonomous field of production by writers including Théophile Gautier, Charles Baudelaire and Gustave Flaubert. It also discusses Bourdieu’s account of the invention of the figure of the engaged intellectual by Émile Zola, which brought the French literary field to a level of autonomy from economic and political power it has not exceeded since. The chapter concludes by outlining Bourdieu’s claim that the literary and cultural fields have now entered a phase of ’involution’ in the face of commercial and political pressures, bringing with them new forms of censorship and patronage.

7Chapter 4 examines Bourdieu’s claim to have produced a ’science of works’, and the opposition he sets up between a ’scientific’ sociology and ’literature’. It places Bourdieu’s theory of sociological knowledge in the context of Gaston Bachelard’s philosophy of science, from which he develops his epistemology. It then reads Bourdieu’s analysis of Gustave Flaubert’s L’Éducation sentimentale as an exploration of the difference between a ’scientific’ and a ’literary’ representation of social reality. The chapter shows how Bourdieu drew inspiration from literary writers in his own sociological writing; and how literary writers, most notably Annie Ernaux, have in turn been influenced by Bourdieu. Bourdieu’s position with regard to the relations between literature, science, and reality is finally contrasted with those of contemporary post-structuralist and postmodernist theories of ’textuality’.

8Chapter 5 explains Bourdieu’s interest in literature in terms of its ability to convey critical messages to very wide audiences. It begins by showing how Bourdieu himself made use of literary devices and techniques in his political writings, starting with his 1976 article on ’La Production de l’idéologie dominante’. It then looks at examples of engaged art and literature that served as models for Bourdieu, including works by Günter Grass and Karl Krauss. The chapter, finally, follows Bourdieu’s efforts to establish intellectual groupings that could combine the skills and resources of writers, artists, and researchers, including with plans for the International Parliament of Writers and Liber, a European book review, and explores the reasons for which these projects ultimately failed.

9The last chapter explores the cultural policy implications of Bourdieu’s work on literature. Focusing on two reports commissioned by the French government in the 1980s, it shows how Bourdieu envisioned a literature that would fit into a more integrated education system, and would equip students to live in a multi-cultural world and a modern democracy. It also follows his arguments in favour of state protection and subsidies for literature and the arts, and consequently against the ’neo-liberal’ policy agenda of the 1990s, including the 2000 GATS negotiations. Finally, the chapter shows how Bourdieu urged cultural producers and agencies of diffusion (publishers, libraries, teachers, researchers) to work together to defend and disseminate intellectual and therefore literary culture, by forming what he calls a ’corporation of the universal’.

10In short, against the limited reading of Bourdieu’s work on literature as a form of sociological reductionism, the key arguments this study presents are (1) that Bourdieu’s sociology offers a new and penetrating method of reading literature, (2) that such readings retain a keen sense of the specificity of literature and its political potential, (3) that Bourdieu saw literature as a useful store of ideational and expressive resources, which could also be of use to sociologists, and (4) moreover, all this feeds into the various proposals Bourdieu made regarding literary education over the course of his career. Far from an ’attack’ on literary culture, then, Bourdieu’s sociology of literature represents a theoretically sophisticated and wide ranging exposé of the literary game, which, while at times disenchanting, offers a fresh perspective on some of the most enduring problems in literary criticism, and on some of the most urgent issues facing literature today.


1 See Jean-Pierre Martin, ‘Avant-Propos. Bourdieu le Désenchanteur’, in Jean-Pierre

Martin, ed. Bourdieu et la Littérature (Nantes: Cécile Defaut, 2010), 7–21 (p. 7).


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